News & Sanger Sightings > 2009
Margaret Sanger Attacked at Congressional Hearing, April 22, 2009
During the testimony of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on "New Beginnings: Foreign Policy Priorities in the Obama Administration," representatives brought Margaret Sanger into discussions about the role of family planning and reproductive health in foreign policy. Noting that Clinton had recently accepted Planned Parenthood's Maggie Award, named for Margaret Sanger, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) attacked Margaret Sanger using her own words.
While the Margaret Sanger Project respects the right of any person to voice opinions on reproductive choice, we believe it is wrong and purposely misleading to misquote Sanger’s statements and writings or misrepresent her intent by taking short passages out of the context of its source and out of historical context. A number of groups opposed to reproductive choice have posted quotations attributed to Sanger which are then copied and passed on by others and used in letters to the editor, editorials, web blogs, even published books and now Congressional hearings. While it is outside the Project's mission to try to correct every misuse of Sanger's words or misinterpretation of her intentions, we felt compelled to address the issue in this instance because these statements were made in Congress.
Our efforts to make Sanger's words available in microfilm, book and digital format should reduce the frequency of this problem, as it will give both sides in the debate access to complete and accurate original source material.
Excerpted Remarks of Representative Christopher Smith (R-of NJ)
"With all due respect, Madam Secretary, Sanger's legacy was indeed transformational, but not for the better if one happens to be poor, disenfranchised, weak, disabled, a person of color, an unborn child, or among the many so-called undesirables Sanger would exclude and exterminate from the human race.
Sanger's prolific writings dripped with contempt for those she considers to be unfit to live. I've actually read many of Sanger's articles and her books. Sanger was an unapologetic eugenicist and racist, who said, and I quote, 'The most merciful thing a family does for one of its infant members is to kill it.'"
This line comes from Sanger's Woman and the New Race (1920), p. 63, part of a chapter that addresses the prevalence of large families and the fact that 300,000 infants died each year, 90% of which were "due directly or indirectly to malnutrition, to other diseased conditions related to poverty, or to excessive childbearing by the mother." Providing statistical evidence that the larger the family the higher the infant mortality levels, Sanger wrote the remark quoted above. She says nothing about race, the weak, disabled or the disenfranchised. Instead she followed the quoted lines with: "The same factors which create the terrible infant mortality rate, and which swells the death rate of children between ages one and five, operate even more extensively to lower the health rate of the surviving members. Moreover the overcrowded homes of large families reared in poverty further contribute to this condition. Lack of medical attention is still another factor, so that the child who must struggle for health in competition with other members of a closely packed family has still great difficulties to meet after its poor constitition and malnutrition have been accounted for."
Rep. Smith continued:
"She [Sanger] also said, on another occasion, quote, 'Eugenics is the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.'"
This quote has been excerpted from a longer sentence which reads in its entirety: " Today Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems."
For Sanger, eugenics was a genetic tool for strengthening the human race by building stronger human beings, not by eliminating any particular group.
For a nuanced treatment of the eugenics movement, see Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, and for Sanger's place in it, see: The Sanger-Hitler Equation, one of our newsletter articles.
Click here for the entire article. An annotated version of this article is available in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume I The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928.
Rep. Smith continued:
"In her book, "The Pivot of Civilization," Sanger devoted an entire chapter, which she entitled "The Cruelty of Charity," to explaining a shockingly inhumane case for the systematic denial of prenatal and maternal health care for poor pregnant women.
'Such benevolence is not merely superficial and nearsighted,' Sanger wrote, it, 'conceals a stupid cruelty and leads to a 'deterioration in the human stock' and the perpetuation of "defectives, delinquents and dependents.'"
In Pivot of Civilization (1923), Sanger described her opposition to thoughtless charity that ignores the needs and rights of women, the full paragraph reads:
"Such "benevolence" is not merely superficial and near-sighted. It conceals a stupid cruelty, because it is not courageous enough to face unpleasant facts. Aside from the question of the unfitness of many women to become mothers, aside from the very definite deterioration in the human stock that such programs would inevitably hasten, we may question its value even to the normal though unfortunate mother. For it is never the intention of such philanthropy to give the poor over-burdened and often undernourished mother of the slum the opportunity to make the choice herself, to decide whether she wishes time after to time to bring children into the world. It merely says "Increase and multiply: We are prepared to help you do this." Whereas the great majority of mothers realize the grave responsibility they face in keeping alive and rearing the children they have already brought into the world, the maternity center would teach them how to have more. The poor woman is taught how to have her seventh child, when what she wants to know is how to avoid bringing into the world her eighth."
Several paragraphs summarizing views on the impact of charity on the poor follow before the rest of Rep. Smith's quote appears:
" This rapid survey is enough, I hope, to indicate the manifold inadequacies inherent in present policies of philanthropy and charity. The most serious charge that can be brought against modern "benevolence" is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression. Philanthropy is a gesture characteristic of modern business lavishing upon the unfit the profits extorted from the community at large. Looked at impartially, this compensatory generosity is in its final effect probably more dangerous, more dysgenic, more blighting than the initial practice of profiteering and the social injustice which makes some too rich and others too poor."
Click here for Pivot of Civilization.
Rep. Smith continued:
"So it is extraordinarily difficult how anyone could be in awe of Margaret Sanger, a person who made no secret whatsoever of views that were antithetical to protecting fundamental human rights of the weakest and the most vulnerable and to suggest that her work remains undone around the world.
As I think you know, in 2000 alone, Planned Parenthood killed over 305,000 children by abortion in the United States alone, and millions more worldwide.
So as part of Sanger's work that remains undone, my question: is the Obama administration seeking in any way to weaken or overturn pro- life laws and policies in African and Latin American countries, either directly or through multilateral organizations, including and especially the United Nations, African Union, or the OAS, or by way of funding NGOs like Planned Parenthood?
And secondly, and so we can have total transparency, you know, as a former lawmaker, we always have definition pages when we write legislation, definitions do matter. Does the United States' definition of the term "reproductive health" or "reproductive services" or "reproductive rights" include abortion?
I yield to the distinguished gentlelady."
"Congressman, I deeply respect your passionate concern and views which you have championed and advocated for over the course of your public career.
We, obviously, have a profound disagreement. When I think about the suffering that I have seen of women around the world, I've been in hospitals in Brazil where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions.
I've been in African countries where 12 and 13-year-old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship.
So we have a very fundamental disagreement and it is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so anywhere in the world, and so are we.
We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women's health and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.
I've spent a lot of my time trying to bring down the rate of abortions and it has been my experience that good family planning and good medical care brings down the rate of abortion.
Keeping women and men in ignorance and denied the access to services actually increases the rate of abortion.
During my time as first lady, I helped to create the campaign against teenage pregnancy and while we were working to provide good information, access to contraception, and decision-making that would enable young women to protect themselves and say no, the rate of teen pregnancy went down.
I'm sad to report that after an administration of eight years that undid so much of the good work, the rate of teenage pregnancy is going up.
So we disagree and we are now an administration that will protect the rights of women, including their rights to reproductive health care.
To watch the complete hearings (3 hours 49 minutes):
To search for and see the discussions of Sanger, visit C-Span's Video Library.
Photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Revised: April 24, 2009